Why One Known Historian Is Disgusted by Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s ‘Untold History’
Posted in: History
The introduction of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s book, The Untold History of the United States, declares before any history is recounted “we don’t try to tell all US history. That would be an impossible task.” It acknowledges there are things the United States has done right, but, “There are libraries full of books dedicated to that purpose and school curricula that trumpet US achievements.” The two are “more concerned with focusing a spotlight on what the United States has done wrong—the ways in which we believe the country has betrayed its mission, with the faith that there is still time to correct those errors as we move forward into the twenty-first century.”
From this point forward, any reasonable person should know history is going to be chosen and selected on the basis that the dark side of American history at home and abroad will be thoroughly explored. Sean Wilentz, who is a history professor at Princeton University and author of The Rise of Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, had a critique of Untold History published by the New York Review of Books that purports to expose the book as a project that “cherry-picks” history.
It does “cherry-pick” and Stone and Kuznick do not dispute the fact that their book is going to omit history that others might want to see included in the book. Wilentz seeks to denigrate the history presented and argues the history in the book is not untold.
…Most if not all of the interpretations that they present in The Untold History of the United States—from the war in the Philippines to the one in Afghanistan—have appeared in revisionist histories of American foreign policy written over the last fifty years. Challenged by early reviewers, Stone and Kuznick have essentially conceded the point about their sources and claimed that what they call the “revisionist narrative” that informs their book has in truth become “the dominant narrative among university-based historians.”
The real problem, they say, is that this revisionism has yet to penetrate the public schools, the mainstream media, and “those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism.” Their version of history may not be untold, but “it has been almost entirely ‘unlearned.’” And so what originally sounded like a startling account of a hidden history is in fact largely a recapitulation and popularization of a particular stream of academic work, in a book that would more properly be called The Unlearned History of the United States—if the scholarship and the authors’ reworking of it were thorough, factually accurate, and historically convincing… [emphasis added]
The criticism that it is really “unlearned” and not “untold” is one teeming with elitism. It does not appear Wilentz finds it to be a problem that “public schools, the mainstream media and ‘those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism,’” do not know much of the history in the book because they were not taught this history. It seems perfectly acceptable to him that Americans only be exposed to it while attending college or university and not while in other sectors of society. One could even go a step further and suggest Wilentz’s problem essentially is that there was a buzz created around the project and, when he began to explore it to see what it was all about, it did not contain any history he did not already know and so he felt it was a waste of his time.
A person could conclude from reading about what key aspects of history Wilentz is bothered by in the project that he does not personally subscribe to certain notions adopted by both Stone and Kuznick. For one, Wilentz is a typical American historian, who loathes those who characterize America as an “empire.” Wilentz is a Truman Democrat and, after reading the book and watching the series, any Truman Democrat would likely feel obligated to point out what aspects of the history of President Harry S. Truman were “incorrect.” Wilentz also does not subscribe to the view that policy changes and developments in society are a result of social movements or the lack of opposition from social movements.
Thomas J. Sugrue could be referring to a historian like Wilentz when he wrote in a review of Joshua Freeman’s American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home, 1945-2000:
…For most public intellectuals and the public itself, America still stands as an exception to Rome or Britain, allergic to imperialism because of its anticolonial roots and its lower-case democratic culture. The United States is a nation builder, not an empire builder; a world power that benignly brought democracy to the world by sowing the seeds of capitalism; a beacon of persuasion rather than coercion. Even if, over the last sixty years, American capital has reached into every corner of the world, Hollywood and New York have reshaped popular culture in Paris and Mumbai, presidents and Congress have provided hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid, and America has intervened in civil wars abroad from Angola to Laos, from Guatemala to Libya, the United States, wrote Gardner in a much-quoted 1989 essay, is still “the empire that dare not speak its name…
Indeed, when he mentions “empire,” it is mocking in tone: “The United States, according to Stone and Kuznick, has remained in the malefic grip of the militarists and empire-builders to this day.”
As a Truman Democrat, individuals like Wilentz believe the world is a community America can lead, knowledge constantly shapes ideology, and economic development should be available to the poorest in the world. However, they do not disagree with neoconservatives who consider America to be the “one indispensable nation in the world.” They find lethal force for “moral” or “good ends” acceptable if it isn’t always used first. And they want America, just as neoconservatives do, to maintain its supremacy as a military, political and economic superpower.
Wilentz’s ideology comes through in the fact that he does not adopt the critique put forward in Untold History of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs. He writes, “The United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan even though, according to the authors, the Japanese themselves already knew they had been defeated. Truman, they believe, hoped this would scare Stalin and the Soviets into postwar submission. When the Soviets refused to be intimidated, an insecure Truman resolved to ‘stand up to Stalin and show him who was boss.’”
…Stone and Kuznick simply ignore the scholarship that contradicts their basic assumptions. It is hardly clear, for example, that the Japanese government was close to surrendering on the Allies’ terms in the summer of 1945. American analysts believed that, short of a bloody invasion of its shores, Japanese leaders would fight hard, holding out for a much milder negotiated settlement, which negates Stone and Kuznick’s contention that Truman was misleading about his motive for using atomic bombs: that they would spare the lives of untold thousands of American GIs. Nor did Truman shift away from FDR’s incomplete vision of a grand bargain with the Soviets until he fitfully became convinced that Stalin’s encroachments in Eastern and Central Europe posed a threat to Western security…
These analysts go unnamed in Wilentz’s review (though some works are cited which Americans could presumably read and search for what he is referencing). Wilentz conveniently ignores the military leaders highlighted in the book, who considered the bombings “militarily unnecessary or morally reprehensible.”
Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, found the “Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…The use of this barbarous weapon was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” General Henry “Hap” Arnold, said, “It always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” And General Curtis LeMay concluded, “Even without the atomic bomb and Russian entry into the war, Japan would have surrendered in two weeks.” He also said, “The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war.” And Stone and Kuznick list Naval officers Admiral Ernest King, commander-in-chief of the US Navy, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet and Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Fleet, to further demonstrate the bombs never needed to be dropped.
Not only is Wilentz repulsed by how Truman’s decision to drop the bombs is presented as an act of barbarism, but he is offended by the presentation of the birth of the Cold War. He takes further issue with how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace, is cast as a hero in the project.
Stone and Kuznick’s exploration of how Democratic Party bosses conspired to prevent Wallace from being renominated as vice president in 1944 and selected Truman to replace him has been considered revelatory by most who’ve viewed the series. Wilentz does not dispute that a conspiracy unfolded at the Democratic National Convention that year, however, he excuses what was done to Wilentz by suggesting Wallace was “aloof” and “ethereal” and “had antagonized nearly every member of the upper chamber, which made him a major political liability for FDR.” He was a “‘a searcher for methods of bringing the ‘inner light’ to outward manifestation,’ and his searches led him to fall under the influence of some oddball prophets.” Thus, upon reflection, Wilentz disputes how Stone and Kuznick make the conspiracy seem malicious, as if the Democratic Party bosses did not fully realize FDR was weak and dying of polio and would not be able to fight the coup they engineered at the convention.
It is worth noting that Wilentz has a deep-seated contempt for the late people’s historian Howard Zinn. When asked by the Los Angeles Times to provide his opinion on Zinn’s work after he died, he told the newspaper, “To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great.” He added, “[Zinn] saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.”
Similar to Zinn, Stone and Kuznick seek to agitate people. The end of the ten-part documentary series even contains a call to action so really this is what Wilentz does not like: the fact that Stone and Kuznick produced a project for the purpose of spurring Americans to reverse the current course of this country that has been set by corporate interests, the national security state and other various proponents of US empire.
This is why Wilentz was moved to write such a pompous critique of Untold History. As he told the New York Times months ago, “It’s so overloaded with ideological distortion that this question doesn’t get raised in an intelligent way. And once a question gets raised in an unintelligent way, then you are off in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Stone and Kuznick are only guilty of fashioning a version of history they think is too often ignored by Americans. They committed the offense of presenting acts committed by presidents and lead military or government officials in the past century as a part of a continuum. Then, they went a step further and idealistically suggested citizens who read/view this project have the power to affect how this country proceeds forward. They could influence whether it continues to dominate the world with its military, maintain supplies of nuclear weapons and allow a tiny minority of wealthy Americans to control domestic politics, foreign policy and the media. They could decide whether to permit levels of surveillance, government intrusion, civil liberties abuses and losses of privacy that those who founded the country would have opposed unequivocally. And they could promote interest in history by sharing the project with friends and family so citizens are more informed.
The majority of contents of the Untold History project may be taught in the colleges or universities of America. It may even be taught by Wilentz himself. However, there are many, many Americans who do not go to school after graduating high school and learn history. They do not have any interest in learning history. By producing a documentary series for Showtime, the two engaged in an effort to reach the public with something fascinating or entertaining so key events and developments in American history did not remain unknown and, perhaps, people who never thought they wanted to know this information might encounter it and become more knowledgeable of America’s much-ignored and dark past.